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Presidents meet BBC Director-General following the Panorama programme on North Korea

06 June 2013

Following their joint statement criticising the use of academic cover in the making of the recent BBC Panorama programme on North Korea, and the possible consequent risks to academic researchers elsewhere, the Presidents of the British Academy and Royal Society met this week with the corporation’s new Director-General, Lord Hall. A report of that meeting follows below:

Meeting held on 3 June 2013 at the Royal Society, 6--9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1

Present: Mr Ric Bailey, Chief Adviser, Politics, BBC

              Tony Hall (Lord Hall of Birkenhead), Director-General, BBC

              Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President, Royal Society

              Professor Sir Adam Roberts, President, British Academy

              Professor Nicholas Stern (Lord Stern of Brentford), President-elect, British Academy

The meeting was convened after concerns had been expressed about the possible risk to academic researchers in connection with undercover reporting. The immediate occasion was the BBC Panorama programme on North Korea in April, and the involvement of students from the London School of Economics in the trip to North Korea on which it was based. On 15 April  the Presidents of the British Academy and the Royal Society had issued a statement that the making of theprogramme raised serious issues about the credibility and security of UK academics working overseas. On the same day an invitation had been extended to Lord Hall to discuss these concerns. A preliminary meeting was held on 24 April, attended by RB, AR and NS. The present meeting was held, not to go over details of this particular programme and the nature of its connection with LSE, but to look forward.

The focus of the meeting was on the wider and often indirect risks to academics/researchers if academic cover is used, or perceived as being used, for undercover reporting; and on what can be done to reduce those risks.

The national academies’ representatives  cited examples, drawn from their own experience, of risks that can arise to others, including academic researchers,  from undercover activities using academic or medical research as a cover. While the BBC had already reiterated that it would not be acceptable to use the cover of 'humanitarian or medical trips', similar issues may arise if other academic trips are perceived as being used as cover.

There was agreement that in future risk assessments the BBC would recognise risks to academics/researchers that may arise directly or indirectly from the making of certain programmes if academic cover is used, or could be perceived to have been used, in connection with undercover reporting activities. The national academies remain willing to assist in working out the issues to be addressed in such assessments, and there will be further contacts between the parties on this.